Not Just a Plaything 

Nashville artist Herb Williams uses Crayolas to create intensely colorful, at times unsettling sculptures

Nashville artist Herb Williams uses Crayolas to create intensely colorful, at times unsettling sculptures

Color Coded: Works by Herb Williams

Through Sept. 5

Tennessee Arts Commission Gallery

401 Charlotte Ave. 741-1701

I doubt any of us ever forget the Crayolas we had as kids—box tops flipped open to show off rows of colors that by now constitute nearly universal mental reference samples. Nashville sculptor Herb Williams never got over his box of Crayolas, as he demonstrates in a set of new sculptures on display through Sept. 5 at the Tennessee Arts Commission. The works are simple iconic forms—a piece of fruit, a human bust, a glass, a bottle—the surfaces of which are densely covered with carefully measured pieces of crayon that give the sculptures their color and texture.

The first thing that catches the viewer’s eye is the color. Each sculpture is in a single color, a kind of reduction—in the sense used in cooking—of the hue in question. A single crayon by itself, before it is used on a piece of paper, has some of that quality, intense and luscious. This must be one reason why Crayolas stay popular—the power of them as pure color draws us in and makes us want to participate in that color, to make something of it. Which is what Williams has done. But he’s avoided the disappointment that comes from actually using the crayons on paper, the result of which is always thinner than the actual color of the crayon. Instead he uses large numbers of crayons together, all of the same color, to intensify their impact.

The works themselves are built on figurative substructures; Williams cuts the crayons down in length and glues them to these forms. In most cases, the end of the crayon points outward, giving the sculptures monochromatic, pixelated surfaces and textures. The number of crayons and the carefully controlled placement of them add a nice obsessive quality: It’s easy to envision the artist measuring each crayon, cutting it down to the exact size and affixing it to the structure following a painstakingly worked out plan.

The most effective works are an oversized anatomical heart in purple (“Purple Heart”), a human head in red (“Redhead”) and a gigantic green pear (“First Fruit”). The heart is large, bulbous and overstuffed, the dark-purple color particularly rich. There is a tone of threat here as well—this purple is the color of an angry bruise. Indeed, the pieces that work best in this show convey the tension created by introducing hints of injury and threat to our childhood toys or tools. The human head, for instance, makes a strong impact because the featurelessness of the face and the pointed ends of the crayons give it a menacing character.

This show marks a departure from Williams’ previous work, which was mostly in wood. The quality of the material here is different, more vibrant and more sensual. There is, of course, some continuity as well: The artist maintains his wholesale incorporation of everyday objects, imbuing them with an iconic quality and a darkness. His earlier works incorporated saw blades, which carry complex associations: They’re creative and constructive when used to work wood, but they regularly maim and even kill those who would master them. The works in this new show carry that tension further and give it a stronger and more immediate impact. The best pieces have a greater outward strangeness, with their threatening aspect now standing in contrast to the assumed characteristics of the materials chosen. Crayons, as a childhood plaything, tend to suggest innocence and comfort; Williams moves them into an adult world, where that association starts to unravel.

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